"Be prepared for the loneliness of leadership. It is worse and more difficult than you may have thought it would be, for it is not a thought; it is real."

–-- Peter Koestenbaum

On Misfits and Outcasts

Yes­ter­day as I was writ­ing my last post I for­got some­thing — from the con­ver­sa­tion I was hav­ing with a friend about her des­tiny. As we con­tin­ued to talk, what also came out was the sense that those who hon­or and fol­low their unique paths may also have to endure con­sid­er­able lone­li­ness and a sense that they are mis­fits. There is no cer­tain glo­ry, at least not right way, in tend­ing toward unique ideas and per­spec­tives, or if you are in the mar­ket­place, unique work. It may take some time for your lead­er­ship to catch fire. And all along that way, you may hold the nag­ging ques­tion of whether you have gone too far, are not just beyond the edge of a com­fort zone but total­ly over it, and that there is no one now who can under­stand you.

It may be pop­u­lar these days to cel­e­brate the heretics — when they are suc­cess­ful. An indi­vid­u­al­ist cul­ture may applaud an Ein­stein or even as beau­ti­ful and fre­net­ic a rene­gade as Abbie Hoff­man of Steal This Book fame, but over­all, soci­eties do not place as much val­ue on those at the edge as those at the cen­ter. A Jack Welch, for all his imper­fec­tions and atten­dant loss of stature, no doubt has had a much broad­er impact on how busi­ness is actu­al­ly con­duct­ed in this coun­try than say a true thought leader like Peter Sen­ge. But, of course, what soci­eties do and who they sup­port is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a mea­sure of any­thing except the ener­gy of self-per­pet­u­a­tion. Luck­i­ly there are val­ues that tran­scend human insti­tu­tions and cul­tur­al norms. If those val­ues did not exist as social forces — val­ues such as free­dom, jus­tice, com­pas­sion, truth, integri­ty, democ­ra­cy, human­ism — reg­i­men­ta­tion and total­i­tar­i­an con­trol might soon paint our globe as the human con­di­tion. And there are dif­fer­ent kinds of intel­li­gence, always ready to break through at the bound­aries of what is known and believed.

But this post is not about soci­ety, nor con­for­mi­ty real­ly. It is about you, and the degree to which you see your­self as “dif­fer­ent” in some impor­tant way. Koesten­baum in the book cit­ed above exhorts peo­ple to val­ue their mis­fit qual­i­ties as being the source of their lead­er­ship — what they see in them­selves that makes them unique can be a great gift to the world. But he is also quite right that the path of the indi­vid­ual may sub­ject a per­son to feel­ings of lone­li­ness, and per­haps ter­ri­fy­ing­ly so. This shows up, of course, less in the suc­cess­es than in the fail­ures and blocks and chal­lenges that nat­u­ral­ly come along. Some­times heretics are sim­ply lost peo­ple, and for­got­ten. There is that risk.

The ques­tion is what the fail­ures do to us, and how we move through them; whether we con­tin­ue to trust in the pat­terns of the uni­verse or give up and go back to trust­ing the pat­terns and norms of a cur­rent and con­ven­tion­al soci­ety. Many peo­ple today are fright­ened by the econ­o­my and there has been a gen­er­al­ly more con­ser­v­a­tive tilt in the orga­ni­za­tions I’ve touched. Peo­ple are more care­ful and qui­eter, less will­ing to risk, and also some­times it seems, less like­ly to think for them­selves or hon­or their unique paths. The tilt is toward pro­tec­tion of what gains have been made and not to stand out. No one, after all, wants to face the lone­li­ness of long unem­ploy­ment if they don’t have to. Like Yos­sar­i­an in the clas­sic nov­el, Catch-22, we have been faced with the dic­tum, “All you have to do is like us.” Nev­er mind what you plain­ly see, what’s hap­pen­ing, what’s actu­al­ly going on.

Lt. Col. Korn, XO: [speak­ing to Yos­sar­i­an] All you have to do is be our pal. 
Colonel Cath­cart: Say nice things about us. 
Lt. Col. Korn, XO: Tell the folks at home what a good job we’re doing. Take our offer Yossarian. 
Colonel Cath­cart: Either that or a court-mar­tial for deser­tion.

It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that once behav­ior changes, thoughts change to line up behind it. Get peo­ple to shift their con­duct, at some point they agree with and sup­port the con­duct in order to avoid cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance.

But if you don’t resolve the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, where are you? In a state of ten­sion is where, and the issue then is what you will do with you. It’s one thing, and it’s easy to say, “Well, just think for your­self.” Have you tried it? And then did you find your­self in con­flict with oth­ers? And what did you do with that conflict?

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  • Indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, indeed, can be lonely–unless one is for­tu­nate to dis­cov­er a group of like-mind­ed, inde­pen­dent thinkers as friends or col­leagues. I dis­cov­ered the term “shared val­ues” while help­ing a man­age­ment and labor spe­cial­ist edit a man­u­script. Where­as shared val­ues are glue bind­ing fam­i­lies, sys­tems, and orga­ni­za­tions, inde­pen­dent think­ing is like­wise so impor­tant. I am often the per­son who asks: “why?” “how?” “what else?” “could we?” This is not antag­o­nis­tic ques­tion­ing; it is gen­uine curios­i­ty and meant to spur on oth­ers’ thinking–and mine. Some peo­ple can­not take it; they ques­tion the ques­tion. I just signed off a list­serv in which one bold (loud) voice said, claim­ing to speak for the group but prob­a­bly main­ly her­self: “No ques­tions!” (Actu­al­ly, she used unciv­il language–that’s how strong the resistance–and I got the point.) In my own life, I find that the bur­den (oppor­tu­ni­ty) of adap­ta­tion is often on the high­ly cre­ative per­son. Some peo­ple have been con­di­tioned to not think out­side the box; that’s ok. That’s right for them. But some of us, by train­ing or tem­pera­ment, must also heed the truth of our fin­ger­print — unique­ness of insight or out­look — to be true to our­selves. “Love the ques­tions them­selves,” Rilke advised.

  • Maria, thank you for writ­ing. This is the dilem­ma, isn’t it, that to hold to one’s “fin­ger­print” can result also at times in ten­sion, alien­ation (at least tem­po­rary), and mis­un­der­stand­ing. The chal­lenge is to remain open, to hear about one’s impact and not shut off the flow while also hold­ing to one’s path. I believe if we do this right we offer an invi­ta­tion to oth­ers and remain sol­id our­selves. And isn’t it so that in the end that’s the most that can be offered real­ly, an invitation?

  • I sus­pect that the high­er val­u­a­tion of peo­ple at the cen­ter vs. peo­ple at the edge is part of what defines a soci­ety (or a com­mu­ni­ty), which is why con­for­mi­ty is typ­i­cal­ly reward­ed and chal­lenges are often pun­ished, whether it be a reli­gious, polit­i­cal, busi­ness or mil­i­tary community.

    I recent­ly encoun­tered a ref­er­ence to Sys­tem Jus­ti­fi­ca­tion The­o­ry that may help explain (or at least label) this phe­nom­e­non. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

    Sys­tem jus­ti­fi­ca­tion the­o­ry (SJT) is a sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry with­in social psy­chol­o­gy that pro­pos­es peo­ple have a moti­va­tion to defend and bol­ster the sta­tus quo, that is, to see it as good, legit­i­mate, and desirable.

    Accord­ing to sys­tem jus­ti­fi­ca­tion the­o­ry, peo­ple not only want to hold favor­able atti­tudes about them­selves (ego-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion) and their own groups (group-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion), but they also want to hold favor­able atti­tudes about the over­ar­ch­ing social order (sys­tem-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion). A con­se­quence of this ten­den­cy is that exist­ing social, eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal arrange­ments tend to be pre­ferred, and alter­na­tives to the sta­tus quo are disparaged.

    I also recent­ly encoun­tered an arti­cle on Soli­tude and Lead­er­ship: “If you want oth­ers to fol­low, learn to be alone with your thoughts”. The lec­ture, deliv­ered by William Dere­siewicz to West Point “plebes”, describes — and warns against — “world class hoop jumpers”, “excel­lent sheep” and “peo­ple who can climb the greasy pole of what­ev­er hier­ar­chy they decide to attach them­selves to”. Instead, Dere­siewicz makes a com­pelling case for courage, con­vic­tion, con­cen­tra­tion, intro­spec­tion and inti­mate con­ver­sa­tion — and the soli­tude these require — as the essen­tial ele­ments of effec­tive lead­er­ship. It is the most inspir­ing essay I’ve read in a long time … er, aside from posts on this blog, of course.

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